Marketing with Memes

July 25, 2012 | by Melanie Davis

When an advanced alien race discovers the ruins of our civilization and studies our culture, they’ll probably declare our time as the Age of the Memes. Memes are everywhere nowadays. They’ve crawled out of their birthplaces on Internet message boards and invaded our social networks with socially awkward animals, unusually sophisticated babies and hipster cartoon characters.

However, for something that’s so pervasive, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding memes. A recent college grad who sits next to me threw me a puzzled look when I started talking about memes. College kids are usually our country’s go-to source for Internet-related knowledge, so her confusion means that meme ignorance must be widespread.

We need to understand and embrace memes, because these pervasive videos and pictures can be killer marketing tools. The elements that have made memes so popular—humor, simplicity, shareability—make memes an ideal ambassador for brands. So let’s learn a little more about memes and how they’re being used in marketing campaigns, as well as some tactics to avoid if you don’t want your brand to end up forever alone.

What Is a Meme?

The meme was first defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” However, when we talk about memes today we’re usually referring more specifically to Internet memes: ideas that spread online. Memes can be pictures, videos, hashtags, phrases or any other vessel for an idea.

Memes are born through pop culture and everyday observations. From there, they spread rapidly through social networks, blogs and email; the most popular memes eventually make their way into newspapers, magazines, movies and TV shows. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” song is a great example of a meme that became so popular you couldn’t escape it.

Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert’s version of the song was much, much better.

Marketing with Memes

Because memes are basically catchy, timely, easy-to-share ideas, brands have started piggybacking on memes to share marketing messages. It makes sense: if you can relate a popular and often funny idea with your brand, people are more likely to pay attention to what you have to say.

Wonderful Pistachios have been all about using memes in their marketing. Their advertising campaigns regularly feature celebrities and pop culture references, so memes were a logical extension. One spot stars Honey Badger, a devil-may-care animal who gained fame in a YouTube video narrated by a man named Randall.

In the Wonderful Pistachios spot, Honey Badger still doesn’t care, but now he’s using his cobra prey to open a nice little pistachio snack.

Wonderful Pistachios featured another popular meme, Keyboard Cat, in another spot. Keyboard Cat got his start in a YouTube video in 2007, and has enjoyed a long life as a meme—even though the actual cat is sadly deceased. Keyboard Cat plays people off after a notable failure, like a performer “getting the hook” in a lame stage act.

In the Wonderful Pistachios ad, Keyboard Cat shows us how he enjoys a tasty pistachio snack: by cracking the nuts open while playing his signature tune.

Virgin Mobile is another company that’s riding the meme train to catchy campaign town. Virgin Mobile’s UK campaign was based around Success Kid, a picture-and-caption meme that stars a cute toddler with a triumphant expression.

Success Kid has been used by Internet denizens to celebrate successes of all kinds, from finding an extra $5 in your pocket to getting away with a tardy entrance.

Virgin Mobile used Success Kid to share the success enjoyed by their customers, who get more value for their dollar.

Both Virgin and Wonderful Pistachio’s campaigns capitalize on the familiarity and humor of the original memes to communicate their marketing messages—messages that pair nicely with the spirit of the memes.

Which brings us to an important point: before you develop a campaign around Philosoraptor or Foul Bachelor Frog, there are some important considerations to take into account. Namely, is there a strong tie to your brand? Do you have the time and money to devote to the campaign? And are you striking while the iron is hot—or after the world has moved on to the next cool meme?

Meme Marketing Considerations

Is it relevant?

Before building a campaign around a meme, this is the first question you need to answer. To serve as the foundation for a successful campaign, a meme needs to have a logical tie with your brand. The meme also needs to fit with your brand’s style and feel.

Say, for example, we own a chain of fitness centers. This meme—Ridiculously Photogenic Guy—might be a good fit for our brand.

Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is happy and upbeat. He’s engaging in physical activity. We could conceivably create a campaign based off this meme that communicates the benefits of working out at our fitness center.

However, the aforementioned Foul Bachelor Frog would not be a fit for our fitness center brand. Foul Bachelor Frog is lazy, negative and gross. If he came into our fitness center, people would scurry off their treadmills and leave. Foul Bachelor Frog is a widely-shared, recognizable meme, but those attributes alone don’t make for a strategically-sound campaign.

Another relevancy-related consideration is the PCness of the meme. Most companies want positive, non-controversial ideas associated with their brands. And because memes are often born on the Internet, where inappropriate references run free, many memes will make your HR department shriek in horror.

Remember, just as you can add on to a meme, so can anyone on the Internet. Even if you create a nice, PC campaign, there could be other derivations of the meme with cringe-inducing messages, just waiting for your customers to find.

Is it well-executed?

Just because you can create your own meme examples for free on Meme Generator doesn’t mean that your meme-based campaign will necessarily be cheap and easy.

Take, for example, the Virgin Mobile Success Kid campaign. The original image was uploaded to Flickr by a photographer named Laney Griner. (Success Kid is her actual kid.) When Virgin decided to create a campaign based off the image, they had to track down Laney and compensate her for the rights to her image. Otherwise they could have found themselves in a very un-Success Kid situation.

Apart from paying for usage rights, a marketing campaign based around a meme still requires the same production costs as any other type of campaign. The meme is your starting idea; you still have to develop original messaging and package it into an attractive, professional product.

The hit pop song “Call Me Maybe” shows us the importance of executing a meme properly. Thousands of people have created their own versions of the “Call Me Maybe” song; only a few have garnered any significant kind of attention. The popular versions are clever and professionally done. The not-so-popular versions are either unoriginal or look and sound like they were made in someone’s basement.

Here’s an example of a well-executed “Call Me Maybe” cover, performed by the Big 10 mascots. Posted to YouTube on July 11, 2012, the video already has 296,000+ views.

Conversely, this video starring a lone guy in his bedroom is not as well done—limited action, some background noise—and has about 296,431 fewer views. To be fair, this guy probably put this together in less than 5 minutes to kill some time on a weekday night. But if you put similar effort into your meme marketing campaign, you’ll get a similar return on your investment.

Are you on the wrong side of the Meme Curve?

All memes follow similar lifecycles. First they’re born from a relatable social situation or a funny pop culture moment. Then, they spread. And spread. And spread, until the original ideas become a full-blown memes.

As more and more people share the memes, they begin to lose their freshness. What was once witty seems dull; what was once insightful seems rote. Think of a meme’s lifecycle like a bell curve. On the left side of the curve, the meme is new, funny and clever. Once the meme hits the tipping point at the top of the Meme Curve and is saturated throughout the Internet and the media, it loses its zip and can even be viewed as lame or boring.

(Cracked.com has a nice timeline on the rise, decline and fall of a meme to help you visualize the Meme Curve phenomenon.)

As a marketer, you want to use a meme when it’s on the rising side of the Meme Curve. Create your campaign when a meme is popular enough to be recognizable yet not so popular that everyone’s sick of it.

When Fiat chose Charlie Sheen to star in their 2012 ad for their Abarth car, they were on the wrong side of the Meme Curve. Charlie was dismissed from Two and a Half Men in March 2011 and went on his meltdown tour of erratic behavior immediately thereafter. By the time the Fiat ad aired, we had already experienced nine months of jokes about “winning” and “tiger blood”—an eternity in meme culture. Fiat’s spot would have made a much bigger splash if it had aired closer to the Sheen meme’s apex.

Ultimately, marketing with memes follows the same rules as any other kind of marketing. You need to have a relevant message. You need to say it well. And you need to be unique—or at least get there first.

Seen any other great examples of meme marketing? Share them with us in the comments.

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